Retro Review: ‘Misery’ (1990) Turns A Dirty Birdy 30 – Retro Review

“Paul, do you know about the early days of the Kimberly diamond mines? Do you know what they did to the native workers who stole diamonds? Don’t worry; they didn’t kill them. That would be like junking a Mercedes just because it had a broken spring. No, if they caught them, they had to make sure they could go on working, but they also had to make sure they could never run away. The operation was called ‘hobbling’…”—Annie Wilkes

The above quote sums up the essence of the 1990 nightmare-inducing suspense and horror film, Misery. Based off the Stephen King novel of the same name, this movie is somewhat less graphic in detail as the original story. However, it still leaves the viewer shivering with an uneasy dread. We feel this apprehension deep in our bones because we know this scenario could really happen to anyone—save the Number One Fan bit, of course. Any of us could easily find ourselves vulnerable to someone who teeters on the edge of sanity. Misery has two main characters: Paul Sheldon and Annie Wilkes. We pretty much only see the inside of Annie’s Victorian home which is virtually out in the middle of nowhere and enduring some heavy snowfall. Unlike much of King’s work, in Misery there are no vampires, werewolves, or telekinetic revenge sequences involving buckets of pigs blood, but there is definitely one very real monster.

Annie Wilkes, played by the legendary Kathy Bates (Dolores Claiborne 1995 – read our retro review here) is definitely human, but in her ferocious strength, utter insanity, and polarizing mood swings, she is scarier than any werewolf. Paul Sheldon, played by the equally legendary James Caan (The Godfather 1972), finds himself entirely dependent on her after she has rescued him from a terrible car accident which no one else bore witness to. His legs have been shattered. Wilkes, a former nurse, is able to rig up a support system for him and keep him well doped up on painkillers. In her words, she is Paul Sheldon’s “number one fan.”

We get the impression the only thing going on in Wilkes’s lonely life are Sheldon’s romance novels, which tell the story of a woman named Misery. In his initial gratitude toward Wilkes, the author allows her to read his recently finished manuscript, which is unrelated to the Misery novels. He is quite proud of this new work. Annie, however, very much disapproves of the cussing in it, and her reaction is our first insight into her madness. The next day, Annie picks up a copy of the newly released finale in the Misery series, which details the demise of her beloved character. She becomes enraged by the death and screams at the author, calling him a “dirty bird!”

After much time, Annie calms down. She declares that God told her He “delivered Paul unto you, so that you may show him the way,” and makes him burn the cuss filled manuscript, which is clearly a painful moment for the author. Shortly after, she demands that he write a new novel, Misery’s Return, to her satisfaction while being held captive in the home. Stephen King has said that he wrote Misery because this scenario is his biggest nightmare.

Misery hit the big screen on November 30, 1990, three years after the eponymous novel was released. King has stated the movie is one of his favorites of all film adaptations of his work. Kathy Bates was virtually unknown at the time, but went on to win the coveted Best Actress Award at the 63rd annual Oscars ceremony for her portrayal of the terrifying Annie Wilkes. The character is larger than life, both in stature and presence. Wilkes towers over the laid up Sheldon and Bates’ performance is both hauntingly stern and violently dark. She was able to capture the dichotomy of deep loneliness and ferocious madness inside of one mind.

We can almost find ourselves sympathizing with the character, which was the intention of the director, Rob Reiner (Stand By Me 1986). This is why the original scene of the foot decapitation from the novel was replaced with a less severe hobbling for the movie. Reiner did not want the audience to simply hate Wilkes, but possibly feel a twinge of sadness for her. Watch the official trailer below.

Caan was not considered for the role at first, but only after a series of actors turned down the part, including Harrison Ford and Robert DeNiro. Finally, Caan was approached and his portrayal of the somewhat arrogant Paul Sheldon is quite capturing. We really feel the terror the author feels for Wilkes and can sense his will to live throughout the film.

When Sheldon first escapes the claustrophobic room he is being held in, our hearts fall when he reaches for the doorknob, which does not turn, or when we realize Wilkes does not own a working phone and has been lying to Sheldon from the beginning about her intentions with him. When he learns a bit of Wilkes’ history as a nurse in a hospital in her scrapbook, a picture of her in all of her madness becomes more fully formed, and we feel this can be used as a tool for Sheldon’s escape. The more he knows about her, the more he may be able to manipulate her and make it out alive.

Broadway Play

Misery was brought to life on a Broadway stage on November 15, 2015, and ended its short run on February 14, 2016. The theatrical version starred Bruce Willis (The Sixth Sense 1999 – read our retro review here) as Paul Sheldon and the unbelievably talented Laurie Metcalfe (Scream 2 1997 – read our retro review here) as Annie Wilkes. Metcalfe’s performance earned her a Tony nomination for Best Actress in a Leading Role in 2016. Unfortunately, the play’s reception from critics and audiences wasn’t quite as warm as the film release. This was Willis’ debut on Broadway, and his performance of Paul Sheldon was considered “too laid back” to make the performance appear realistic. This was not helpful in creating the same suspense and terror the film holds, and reviews declared it to be underwhelming. I would still have loved to see this, and I hope they one day revive the stage adaptation.

Misery: Broadhurst Theatre, New York City

I’m hoping this is not the last we will see of Misery, although with the remakes Hollywood has been pumping out over the past 10 years, I also hope the film does not fall victim to that fate. The 1990 classic is one that sincerely belongs on top horror film lists and is a go to for all horror fans. Many of the adaptions from King’s novels, in my opinion, don’t seem to measure up and can even come off as comical, especially watching them years down the road. They don’t hold up. Misery is certainly not one on that list, as I believe it stands the test of time. Due to a stellar cast list which also includes Lauren Bacall (Murder on the Orient Express 1974), the acting and darkness of the setting combine to create a film that has continued to haunt us for the past 30 years, and I’m sure will continue to do so for many more to come.

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